Damning testimonies reveal the truth behind Qatar's expensive PR gloss

Damning testimonies reveal the truth behind Qatar's expensive PR gloss

10/09/2021

‘My friends have been locked up for weeks and had their heads shaved just for looking like they might be gay’: Damning testimonies reveal the truth behind Qatar’s expensive PR gloss

When he was about 13 or 14, Rafiq’s father and brothers beat him with broom handles in the hope of correcting what they called his ‘effeminate’ way of walking. 

Rafiq, who is gay, says that over time his behaviour became a source of ‘terrible shame for my wealthy family’.

Then one day his father snapped and, in exasperation, ordered him to ‘walk like a man’ with his shoulders pulled back, his chin parallel to the floor, chest thrust forward.

Rafiq recalls: ‘They were training me – my father and my brothers – getting me to practise walking, but it didn’t work.

‘I have always been feminine in the way I move. They hit me with their sticks, mainly on my back, when I got it wrong. I went to my bedroom shaking and crying and praying to God to make me straight.’

Rafiq, who is gay, says that over time his behaviour became a source of ‘terrible shame for my wealthy family’ (file photo)

Rafiq, now 37, is from Qatar, the gas-rich Gulf city-state that will host the World Cup – despite having a stifling climate and no football culture – and where homosexuality is considered abnormal and is punishable by three years in jail.

Gay men and women are persecuted and, ever fearful that their double lives will be uncovered, exist in a constant state of anxiety. The backdrop to their fretful lives is the dynamic capital Doha, a shimmering forest of futuristic skyscrapers alongside the Persian Gulf, which will welcome 1.5 million football fans next year. Ahead of their arrival, the emirate has been busy burnishing its shaky public image.

Fans will be permitted to wave rainbow flags at matches for instance. But the reality, as The Mail on Sunday discovered, is that little has changed for Rafiq and his friends since his traumatising lessons in deportment. If anything, things are worse, he says.

In fact, they still face the kind of oppression that England’s socially aware footballers normally like to address. In the words of captain Harry Kane, they are committed to ‘kicking out all inequalities’.

However, despite manager Gareth Southgate’s insistence that it is their ‘duty’ to speak out on social issues, the players have been notably silent on Qatar’s inequalities.

One former England hero who is unlikely to make a stand is David Beckham, despite once declaring he was honoured to be a gay icon. He signed a deal this year, thought to be worth at least £10 million, to be the media-friendly face of Qatar.

Rafiq, now 37, is from Qatar, the gas-rich Gulf city-state that will host the World Cup – despite having a stifling climate and no football culture – and where homosexuality is considered abnormal and is punishable by three years in jail (file photo)

The Qataris we interviewed, who spoke about the mental toll of hiding their sexuality, believe a well-judged pronouncement from Kane and Co ahead of the World Cup could stimulate debate and possibly reform. Better still, says Azhar, a 34-year-old engineer, they should ‘boycott the tournament altogether’.

He spoke of being ‘treated like a leper’ and being ‘degraded and dehumanised’ because of his sexuality, which has left him with deep-rooted mental-health problems.

He says he has contemplated suicide on several occasions. Last week, in a nod to democracy, Qatar, which bans political parties, held limited elections for the first time in its 50-year history. Whether it represents genuine reform or is little more than a publicity stunt to appease a watching world, the vote is unlikely to do much for LGBT Qataris. Not least because there is a depressingly widespread belief here that people choose to be gay.

When he was a teenager, Rafiq’s father, a successful businessman, arranged for him to see a psychiatrist in the forlorn hope he ‘might be cured’. Rafiq says: ‘But I couldn’t go through with it. You can imagine the pain all this caused my parents. This in turn caused me pain. Through no fault of my own, I’m inflicting anguish on them. This was very hard to bear.’

His experiences mirror those of Azhar, who says that if a pill could make him straight he would take it as his life is one of hopelessness.

The rainbow flag is symbol of LGBT pride, but not in Qatar. ‘It is meaningless, simply not compatible with Qatar,’ says Azhar. ‘There is no LGBT community, just a collection of frightened individuals.’

Rafiq says friends in Doha have been detained, often for a month or more, for simply looking ‘too feminine or appearing to be gay’. The police also shaved their heads.

‘Police don’t shave the heads of other prisoners, just gays. It’s barbaric, like something from the Middle Ages.’ Little wonder that dating can be fraught. ‘It is very difficult to meet people,’ says Rafiq. ‘You have to be skilled at reading people, sizing someone up, making a quick decision, making eye contact. I have met guys this way and we have secretly swapped numbers.

‘I use dating apps for fun, just to chat. But I would never meet anyone this way. There is a great fear that you might be meeting an undercover cop. That has happened.’

His longest relationship was three years. ‘We rarely saw each other in public. We rented a cheap apartment and met there. But we had to be careful not to let neighbours know what was going on. It was like an affair but with higher stakes.’

Societal pressure to marry is enormous – and many gay men end up doing so to stop the endless entreaties from family, friends and colleagues. So-called lavender marriages, in which the sexual orientation of the bride and groom are hidden, are not uncommon.

‘I used to lie and say I was engaged,’ says Rafiq. ‘Now I just say it hasn’t happened.’

When he was younger he stole his sister’s clothes, wearing dresses and underwear under his own. ‘Wearing her clothes was an escape. For once, it made me feel good.

‘Make-up is liberating, too. To go out wearing eyeliner or mascara is a little victory.’ He was once fired after his employer found blusher in his desk. Another time, he endured a panic-filled few minutes when his car was stopped for a routine check and a policeman asked if he was wearing make-up. ‘I furiously denied it and got away with it.’

Gay Qataris often speak of filicide, fathers killing sons because of their sexuality. ‘It happened to a friend of people I know,’ says Rafiq. ‘His father is a prominent figure and the story was that he killed his son by tying him up in a car and setting fire to it. He burned to death. You will hear nothing officially about these cases.’

And since homosexuality is never publicly acknowledged, nothing is heard about sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Men are often too scared to attend clinics, leading to cases spreading.

Ahead of Euro 2020 in June, Gareth Southgate said footballers should use the ‘power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate’.

Days later, when Kane proudly wore a rainbow armband during the match against Germany, watched by 20 million, the laddish machismo that once infected the national team seemed banished once and for all. Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable for the captain to align himself to the LGBT cause so overtly.

‘It would be great if he could stick up for us,’ said Rafiq.

Following last night’s match against Andorra, England have all but booked their trip to the Middle East next November.

In addition to the LGBT issue, Qatar, the first Arab nation to host the event, has faced an outcry over its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom died in scorching heat building the stadiums in which Southgate’s men will do battle.

There has been criticism, too, of discrimination against women.

Southgate has indicated his players may address human rights issues after qualification, but campaigners believe they should have done so already. ‘I think our players will, at the right time, want to know more,’ he said last month. ‘But it’s also important we are not put in the middle of something for people’s benefit to try to expose us or embarrass us.’

Campaigners criticised a fact-finding trip to Qatar in August by European football’s governing body, including FA boss Mark Bullingham, for failing to speak to ‘significant human rights organisations’.

For now, Rafiq and his friends can only watch and wait from the shadows. ‘If the World Cup improves things marginally then that is good,’ he says. ‘But none of us are holding our breath. We are abnormal in the eyes of the society, an affront to Islam. Football won’t change that.’

One gay student said: ‘Foreign teams should boycott the tournament. We can’t make progress if this discrimination is allowed to continue. Being allowed to wave rainbow flags won’t make the slightest difference. I heard that was just for foreigners anyway.’

Names have been changed to protect the individuals.

The land where raped women end up being at fault: Sexual violence victims ‘can easily become the accused’ in Qatar due to government’s extreme view of Islamic law, campaigners warn

Of all the inequities facing women in Qatar, it must surely rank among the most perverse.

Campaigners say victims of sexual violence ‘can easily become the accused’ in the authoritarian Gulf state, due to the government’s extreme interpretation of Islamic law.

Many cases have emerged of men being taken at their word claiming sex was consensual, leaving the accuser facing charges of having sex outside of marriage. Punishments for the crime of ‘zina’ – any act of illicit intercourse – normally involve a year in prison and, if the woman is Muslim, up to 100 lashes.

Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Mail on Sunday of her fears that zina laws will be brought into focus at next year’s World Cup.

Campaigners say victims of sexual violence ‘can easily become the accused’ in the authoritarian Gulf state, due to the government’s extreme interpretation of Islamic law. The country’s Khalifa football stadium is pictured above

‘Our concern is that while Qatar is a safe country, the World Cup – as with any major event – will inevitably see an increase in sexual violence cases and the risk of women, possibly football fans from other countries, becoming double victims,’ said Ms Begum.

‘In addition, support for sexual violence victims is non-existent. It is very worrying.’

Around the time Qatar began lobbying for the rights to the World Cup, stories about women punished under zina laws stopped appearing in state-run papers. Since then, Qatar has sought to gloss over anything that might present a negative image.

In March, a report by Human Rights Watch highlighted discrimination through the male guardianship system, which requires them to seek male approval to marry, study or travel. It says Qatari women face ‘deep discrimination in almost all aspects of their lives’. Examples abound. A British woman abandoned by her Qatari husband told the MoS that she is unable to return to the UK with their children because he refuses to give his permission.

The woman, who lives in Doha, said: ‘Society and the law are on his side. It always favours the man, yet he was abusive during our marriage and beat me up for some perceived slight. He hasn’t seen me or the kids for years yet still exerts this power over me. I am trapped here. I tried to get a divorce but it was dismissed. If I went to the airport with my children, I would be arrested.’

In 2019, Noof al-Maadeed, then 21, escaped Qatar after years of domestic abuse. She said she was ‘only allowed to go to school and back. Anything else [and I could] expect a beating’.

Unmarried women under 25 cannot travel abroad without the permission of their male guardian. But Maadeed took her father’s phone and used it to process an exit permit, then climbed out of her bedroom window to go to the airport. She flew to Ukraine then the UK, where she claimed asylum.

Women also face discrimination when trying to access health care. One woman claimed that the state Women’s Hospital in Doha displayed a poster advising women that if they are unmarried and need to see a gynaecologist ‘you need your father’s permission. If you are married, you have to show a marriage certificate and your husband’s ID card’.

Speaking anonymously, a physician told researchers that if a woman ‘is pregnant, or she comes for abortion or something pregnancy-related, we usually need confirmation that she is married, and to have a certificate that she is married or divorced’.

Emergency care is provided – when an unmarried woman is in labour, for instance – but hospitals may report the woman to the police.

In one shocking case last year, female airline passengers – including 13 Australians – were subjected to ‘appalling’ internal examinations by Qatari officials trying to find a woman who had abandoned her newborn baby at Doha airport. Meanwhile, women’s football, though it exists, does not exactly flourish. While a Qatari national women’s team was formed with some fanfare in 2010 (curiously, just two months before the country won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup) it doesn’t appear to have been active for seven years.

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